Mark 2: 1 A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Why am I here in my old high school algebra 2 class? Oh, there’s a final exam today. The one that I haven’t studied for. I haven’t even been to class over the last nearly 40 years. Not only am I totally unprepared, not only do I feel guilty for having blown the whole thing off so long, but I hope no one else notices that my socks don’t match. And that they have holes nonetheless! Why, how did they even let me into school without shoes on? And, come to think of it, in just a bathrobe too? And why are there what appear to be Egyptian hieroglyphics on the test pages? If I don’t pass this test, that not only calls into question my high school diploma but also my college and seminary diplomas, and you know what that means. The thought is so scary I wake myself up out of this nightmare, and see by the clock that its 2: 43 AM. By 2:45 AM I have finally convinced myself that, no I don’t have to be back at Start High School in Toledo, Ohio now, and that yes, I did pass algebra 2. Uh…Don’t ask me about my grades, though.
From what others have told me, and from what I have read, I am not the only one to have such dreams. I think they show how, deep deep down within ourselves, the experiences and feelings of guilt, inadequacy, weakness, shame, fear, inferiority, contamination, and exposure are all tangled up and twisted together. Theoretically we can separate sin from weakness, and shame from guilt by saying that guilt is whenever we feel bad about something we have done or failed to do, when we knew better, while shame is whenever we feel bad about ourselves. Guilt calls into question our conduct, which sometimes might be a good thing to call into question. But shame calls into question our very worth and existence.
And that is never, ever helpful. Shame paralyzes us, like the man on the mat in today’s story. And so it binds us to the very things we feel shame about. Only love liberates and empowers us to grow and change for the better.
Yet its hard to avoid the feelings of shame that come with our needs and weaknesses. And whenever those feelings stick, rightly or wrongly, often then we try to dump them onto others. I see that in a lot of conflicts. They may start out as a legitimate disagreement over some issue or idea, or maybe as a legitimate grievance, like, “When are you going to pay me back those $25 I lent you last Tuesday?” But then it usually degenerates into dueling efforts to justify oneself and dump a big, ripe smelly load of one’s own shame onto the opponent. Whatever the cause, the argument gets to where soon you’re wondering, “Where did that all come from?” All efforts to dump shame on others usually tell us more about the dump-er than about the dump-ee.
That’s how I’ve come to understand the purity laws, rituals and sacrifices of the Old Testament: they speak powerfully to the deep and tangled interconnections of shame, powerlessness, uncleanness, inferiority and guilt inside of us. If you’ve followed our Bible reading program, sometime this last fall or winter you would have read those parts of the Old Testament that tell you what washings the Hebrews did and what sacrifices they made for things like leprosy, or mildew in your house, or if you have touched a dead body or have emitted certain bodily fluids, as well as for committing certain sins.
We could dismiss these purity laws as barbaric and burdensome. Or we could see them as a way of admitting and addressing the mixed feelings that come with being powerless over ourselves, our bodies, our health, and over life and death itself. That could also be liberating and restorative. If you awaken at 2:43 AM feeling that terrible blend of guilt, shame and fear, you can always say, “But I did the required cleansings.”
Now, before we just say “That’s soFirst Century,” consider what so often happens today when someone has a medical emergency. As someone administers first aid, or as they’re loading the victim into an ambulance, the patient so often says, “I’m sorry.” Sorry for the mess, sorry for the inconvenience, so sorry for the interruption to what otherwise was your peaceful afternoon. As though needing help was a moral failure. What they’re often really saying is, “I’m ashamed that I lost control and independence, and needed anyone’s help.”
Or you only have to pay attention to advertising to know what’s what and who’s who in the American hall of shame, unworthiness and uncleanness: those who drink the wrong dietary supplement; those who drink the wrong beer or soft drink; those who are not skinny enough, who are not young enough, not wealthy enough, not light enough in color, the disabled and differently abled, those who wear the wrong designer label on their clothes, or no designer label at all, who come from the wrong country or have the wrong accent. Advertising today does not tell you why Brand A works better than Brand B, as much as it tells you what are your status, your worth and your virtue if you consume or wear Brand A, over Brand B. So no, we have not risen above considerations of guilt, shame and uncleanness, for all our modern therapies and our liberation movements. We only change the criteria of shame or honor, clean or unclean, from one culture to another, from one generation to the next.
I mention all this about shame, sin, guilt, vulnerability, exposure, inadequacy, weakness, uncleanness, and the like because they are also all mixed up in today’s Gospel story. They best answer the first of three questions that this story raises: 1) Why does Jesus first forgive the paralyzed man when his most visible need seems to be healing? What would there even be to forgive?; 2) Why did the teachers and scribes of the law there get so upset with Jesus? And 3) What is Jesus teaching his disciples through his response to someone literally “raising the roof?”
As for the first question, What is Jesus forgiving, when he says, “Son, your sins are forgiven?” and Why would the paralyzed man even feel the need for forgiveness, when you’d think he’d want Jesus to cut to the chase and heal him?: According to the purity laws of Moses, I can think of several reasons why the poor man would be ritually unclean, feel shame and be considered “a sinner,” no fault of his own. He certainly can’t attend to his own bodily functions. If he has bed sores on top of that, we’re talking several visits to the priest and the temple. But he can’t do any of the sacrifices, offerings or other rituals that would cleanse him. The guys who brought him are technically also unclean, for having touched him and his bed.
Nothing immoral nor guilty in all that. And Jesus is not saying, “I know you’re really paralyzed because long ago you committed embezzlement or adultery, and I’m forgiving that.” In fact, Jesus is quite favorably impressed with all five of them. What he’s saying is, “Consider yourself cleansed, and made pure, from now on, because of your faith, and that of the men who brought you here.” So, whether there is some guilt in the man’s past or not, we’re not given to know. Jesus is most likely addressing and forgiving the man’s legal impurity and any shame he would have felt from that, when he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And there’s the answer to our second question, What got those scribes and teachers so mad?” Was it just because, by claiming to forgive, which only God could do, Jesus was also claiming to be divine? That’s a logical conclusion. But its only part of the answer. Under certain circumstances, in certain conditions, these teachers would not have begrudged the man the pronouncement that Jesus gave. If any of them were priests, they would likely have said the same thing to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” that is, you are cleansed and released. But they would only have said that at the temple, or at least in response to the right washing, sacrifice and ceremony.
But here’s Jesus dispensing with the ceremonies, the specialists and the pilgrimage to Zion, and saying, in effect, You can now get from me, directly and immediately, what you used to have to go get at the temple. And instead of getting your cleansing and forgiveness at the price of a calf, a lamb or a pigeon, you can now get it directly and immediately from me for nothing more than faith, than simple trust in me. Shocking.
Its not that he’s attacking the law of Moses and the whole matter of purity, shame and sin. Rather, Jesus says that he came to fulfill it, so that all the world can now have what once was found only in Zion. All the world can now be Zion, all the world now a temple of cleansing, release, reconciliation, forgiveness and empowerment, with faith being all the sacrifice you need to bring to Jesus, the new, eternal and faithful high priest.
Now to those teachers of the law, Jesus has just made a breath-takingly daring end run around the purity and ritual laws of Moses, something on the scale of killing the king and counterfeiting your own money. No wonder they were against him. And either Jesus is crazy, arrogant and dangerous, or he is right. If he is right, then truly, the promised, prayed-for kingdom of God has drawn near. Four men “raised the roof” and we get a “breakthrough” in more ways than one.
So, what will it be, disciples of Jesus? With that we come to the third question: What is Jesus asking of his disciples in this bold and provocative action? I see three important lessons for us in Jesus’ very dramatic object lesson:
The first discipleship lesson is the same as what the teachers of the law rejected: everything our Hebrew spiritual ancestors sought from the temple and the priesthood, at the cost of ceremonies and sacrifices, we now receive directly from Jesus, through him, and through his body, the church, for simple faith. Because, No, we’re never done needing cleansing, release, empowerment, forgiveness and worth. Jesus likened his body to the new temple, and we, as his body, are now the new temple, and a kingdom of priests, his royal priesthood all over the earth.
So, there’s no need to deny nor hide our feelings of weakness, shame, guilt, need, whatever. Don’t try to dump them on other people either. Own them. Then take them directly to Jesus, our High Priest, whether personally, in prayer, or to his body, the church, to someone who looks, acts and loves like Jesus and who can tell us, with his voice of authority and compassion, “Your sins are forgiven.” Or both.
This is different from what all the motivational speakers and pop psychology self-help gurus usually say, whenever they say, “Just be secure in yourself. Just feel good about yourself.” That’s true; it helps. It works. Except when it doesn’t. Then to whatever feelings of weakness and shame we have come more feelings of weakness and shame: the shame of not being able to lift ourselves up by our own emotional bootstraps.
Better yet to accept the human condition of need, weakness, shame, guilt and incompleteness. In life we are both the man on the mat as well as the men carrying the mat. And there is no shame in either role. For with our weakness and needs come gifts and possibilities of interdependence. And that’s the second lesson: interdependence. The kingdom of God, —or “kin-dom” of God, is a kin-dom of interdependence. What these four men did, and how Jesus responded, constitute our liberating, revolutionary declaration of interdependence. As the world keeps changing the way I think its changing, we are going to need a lot more interdependence, not less. The common loaf and the cup, and the sharing of the same, are our symbols of the interrelatedness and interdependence of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ.
The third lesson is to uphold the priority of people over property and propriety. Generally speaking, I don’t recommend making holes in our neighbors’ roofs. I don’t think they would like that. But if that’s what it takes to save a life or release a human being from need and shame, have at it. I’ll even join you and supply the crowbar.
But that’s not usually where we have to take our stands for God, humanity and creation: on someone else’s roof. More like at our schools when someone is being bullied. Or at work when policies or practices demean and destroy Creation, human life and relationships. Sometime, somewhere, some day, if it hasn’t happened already, we too will be faced with the choice to put property or propriety ahead of people, or not, and if that day should come, I would hope that we too would raise the roof. The priority of people over property and propriety is something we declare in the sharing of the bread and the cup, either in communion, or around our tables.
Now that we can take our needs and weaknesses directly to Jesus, and to his body, the church, everywhere is Zion and every day the day of his coming, with good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and honor for those least esteemed. Let’s celebrate our cleansing, our worth and our interdependence as we come forward to share the bread and the cup of communion today.